Tag Archives: book reviews

The Anchoress

Content warning: mental health, self-harm. 

This book had received quite a lot of attention when it first came out, and I was intrigued to read a book that not only has such a striking pearlescent cover, but is by a Canberra author as well. I picked up a copy and it sat patiently on my shelf for ages, but when I got my copy signed at the author’s event launching her newest book, I knew it was time to give this one a go.

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“The Anchoress” by Robyn Cadwallader is a historical fiction novel about a teenage girl called Sarah in medieval England. Sarah decides to become an anchoress, secluding herself in a cell attached to a church to live the rest of her life in solitude and prayer. As the story progresses, the reader comes to learn why Sarah has chosen this hard, lonely life while Sarah learns that even as an anchoress, she cannot escape the outside world.

This is an ambitious book that is excellently crafted. It’s difficult to tell an engaging story completely set within a tiny cell, but Cadwallader brings to life a rich story full of engaging characters and moral dilemmas. You can tell the research that went into this book. Cadwallader conjures a world where the opportunities for a woman to make her own life are greatly limited, especially by the risks of childbirth. The day to day detail of this story brings medieval culture to life. In such simple times, even the smallest objects have so much meaning and utility. I think that my favourite parts of this book are the characters that Sarah interacts with, and the snippets of the outside world that she ultimately can’t escape. I also really loved how the discussion of writing a prayer onto an apple played out, and Sarah’s difficulty in interpreting her faith by balancing the wishes of the villagers and the decisions of the priests.

I think the only part of the book I struggled with was the ambiguity of Sarah either being haunted by the spirit of the previous anchoress Agnes, or suffering from some serious mental health issues. I appreciate that during medieval times, the line between mental illness and mysticism was much, much more blurry than it is today. However, I think that I would have liked maybe a little more focus on the mental health part and looking a bit more sharply at the damage Sarah was doing to herself rather than leaving it ambiguous.

This is a fascinating book that really immerses the reader into a medieval phenomenon that so little is known about. Cadwallader’s passion for her subject matter radiates off the page and I can’t wait to read more of her work.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

A Perfect Square

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

A Perfect Square - a dark mystery, literary fiction style. Where art and creativity meets the occult and conspiracy theories. When synaesthesia becomes clairvoyant. A must read for all lovers of rich and complex fiction

“A Perfect Square” by Isobel Blackthorn is an Australian novel about two mothers and two daughters. Eccentric artist Harriet has her carefully controlled bohemian-bourgeois lifestyle in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria upturned when her pianist daughter Ginny moves back home after a breakup. Tension crackles between them as Ginny tries to pry the truth about her father from her mother and they collaborate on a joint exhibition. In the UK, another artist called Judith struggles with her own daughter Madeline, and as the novel progresses the connections between the two families become more and more clear.

This is a dark and fraught story about the complexity of female relationships, and particularly mother-daughter relationships. I found Harriet a particularly fascinating character who straddles privilege and a more modest artistic lifestyle, who balances innate talent against anxiety about originality, and who wants to see her daughter flourish yet feels envy about her daughter’s success. I felt like there was some real honesty in the way that Blackthorn described an artist’s life. Harriet’s self-doubt and reliance on selling her artworks rather than just painting whatever felt very real to me. Blackthorn also explored some interesting ideas about fatherhood, being a single parent, and how much love and affection is the right amount to give to children.

The focus of the novel was definitely on Harriet and Ginny’s relationship, but the second half of the book had much more of a thriller theme. There were two families, but the majority of the story was so much about Harriet and Ginny that Judith and Madeline were effectively only support characters. I think that I would have liked to have seen either equal airtime for Judith and Madeline to better strengthen the overall sense of suspense, or to have removed them altogether and let Harriet and Ginny carry the story by themselves. I also felt a little like Ginny’s two best friends were support characters as well. It seemed like they had no lives of their own outside Ginny’s sphere of perception and I didn’t feel like Ginny had individual relationships with either of them.

A tense story with some difficult yet universal themes, this book gives an interesting perspective into the lifestyle of artists and expectations around motherhood.

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The Fish Girl

This book was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize and when I got a couple of book vouchers for my birthday last month, I knew that I wanted to spend one on this. I spent some years growing up in Indonesia, and studied the region for years at university, and I was so excited to read this story.

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“The Fish Girl” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novella based on a short story called “The Four Dutchmen” by W. Somerset Maugham. Riwoe’s story conjures a backstory for the character who is never named, but referred to as ‘the Malay trollope’. Riwoe imagines a young Indonesian girl who is hired by an Indo man to work in the kitchen of a Dutch merchant’s house. Mina is from a tiny fishing village and is very young and very naive. However, she soon settles into the routine of preparing and serving food for the master and begins to grow more confident. As time goes on, Mina is noticed by one of the master’s Dutch sailor friends as well as Ajat, a young man from her village. Despite her newfound confidence, Mina’s inexperience is taken advantage of and these men are ultimately her undoing.

This was an excellent novella. Riwoe drew on her own family knowledge as well as thorough knowledge to bring this story to life. Considering how undercooked a character she is in Maugham’s short story, this novella gives Mina a name and demands empathy from the reader when there was none originally. This book feels like a snapshot into both Indonesian culture and Dutch colonisation and it conveys so much in so little. I also loved Riwoe’s writing. I loved how she used spice and smell to bring an extra dimension to her story, and I adored her use of imagery. The similes she used were just exceptional, and completely believable as comparisons that Mina herself would use to make sense of her new life and new experiences.

I only have one criticism for this book, and it’s going to sound like a strange one, but I felt like the novella was too short. The pacing throughout the majority of the book was so perfect, but once Mina steps on the ship everything felt like it was at warp-speed. Riwoe covers all the events of “The Four Dutchmen” in only 14 pages. With all the care and detail and exactness that had been taken with the majority of the book, this part felt rushed and the situation deteriorated so quickly it was hard as a reader to keep up.

This is an excellent book and a stand-out example of the power of historical fiction to tell stories that were ignored or minimised at the time. I’m really looking forward to see more of Riwoe’s work and I am so glad that I picked this as one of my birthday books.

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Black

I supported this graphic novel on Kickstarter. The original campaign ran in early 2016, but like a lot of Kickstarter fundraisers, it took about two years for my copy of the book to actually arrive. I can’t remember where exactly I came across the The authors had been sending me digital versions of chapters via email as they were completed over the time, but I decided to wait until I had the entire paper volume in my hot little hands before I read the story.

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“Black” by Kwanza Osajyefo and Tim Smith 3 is a graphic novel about a world where superpowers exist: it’s just that the only people who have them are black. Kareem is walking home with friends after playing some basketball when they are shot dead by police who recklessly mistake them for somebody else. When Kareem comes back to life in the ambulance, he breaks out to run for his life. Little does he know that the police are not the only ones after him and healing factor is just the beginning of his powers.

This is a very fast-paced story with a complex plot. Aside from the cover and the chapter title pages, the entire graphic novel is in black and white. The art is both striking and consistent with the superhero genre, and effectively captures the diversity of the cast of characters. Kareem is a particularly interesting character who is determined to find his own morals in a new world that tries to convince him everything is black and white. I think there are some great messages in this story and that brings really important social issues into a popular but perhaps underutilised genre.

I think that there were only two things that I found a bit challenging about this book. While I completely appreciate the significance of the use of a monochrome palette, the lack of colour did make the different superpowers a bit unclear – especially in the action scenes. This story also does feel like it is quite rushed. Not rushed in the sense of quality, but rushed in the sense of the reader is not really given a lot of time to process information and meet new characters. I actually think that the contents of this story could have been stretched out over a few volumes rather than squeezed into the one volume, and it would have given a bit more space to explore some of the great characters and themes that were introduced.

Nevertheless, this is a fun and hard-hitting graphic novel that I was so glad to finally get in my mailbox. I’m looking forward to seeing what the authors come up with next.

 

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Artefacts and Other Stories

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.

Artefacts and Other Stories

“Artefacts and Other Stories” by Rebecca Burns is a collection of short stories. Set largely in the UK, many of the stories are set before, during or in the aftermath of World War I. These are stories of ordinary people with jobs, families, memories and traumas as much as they are about the people who have left them behind.

The short story is a tricky art form, but Burns’ vignettes are compelling. Each story tackles the delicacy of human life and the fragile beauty of love, and finishes on its own unique and poignant note. Burns uses objects and everyday events to explore the complexities of human emotion, and some of my favourite stories in the collection were “The Last Game, August 2014”, “The Bread Princess” and “The Greatcoat”. “Artefacts” also stuck with me long after I had finished the book.

I do think some of the stories were stronger than others. Burns has a real knack for capturing the tone of early 1900s England and those historical fiction stories about the tragedy and futility of war really stood out.

If you enjoy short stories, or are fascinated by World War I history, then I think you’ll get something out of these.

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The Left Hand of Darkness

Following the very sad news that Ursula K. Le Guin died earlier this year, my feminist fantasy book club decided to commemorate her by reading one of her books. Le Guin was the first woman to win the Hugo Award for best novel for this book, so expectations were pretty high.

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“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin is a science fiction novel about a man called Genly Ai who has been sent to a frozen planet called Gethen as an envoy. The plot is quite complex, but essentially, Ai comes from a confederation of planets called the Ekumen and has been living on Gethen for some time learning about the planet’s humanoid inhabitants and their peculiar culture. The Genthenians only have one sex: each person goes through a sexual cycle with the potential to be either male or female at its peak. Ai has been working towards a meeting with the “King” in a country called Karhide so he can issue an invitation for Gethen to join the Ekumen. However, Ai’s efforts are undone when he fails to understand the subtle messages communicated by the Prime Minister Estreven.

Not unlike “Orlando“, this book was clearly groundbreaking when it was first released. The edition that I have has an introduction written by China Miéville, who praises the novel and its ability to reveal something new on each rereading. Published in 1969, 50 years ago next year, it certainly was a very unique premise. This is a very complex novel that explores what a society would be like with not quite no gender, but if everyone could experience either gender. The politics and the cultural differences between countries on a Genthen are done cleverly but subtlety, and I think they require a lot of concentration to pick up on the nuances of Genthenian people. Le Guin conjures a palpably icy world, nicknamed Winter by Ai, and the later chapters traversing through a white wasteland read almost like a journal of Antarctic explorers.

However, this book is not easy to read. To begin with, and this is the biggest criticism that Miéville alludes to and Le Guin herself acknowledges in her own introduction, the way gender is handled in this book feels clunky. I think the significance of the fact that each person on this world essentially is at once both male and female is lost because of the Le Guin’s choice of pronouns. I understand that in 1969, gender neutral pronouns in English weren’t really a thing, but given their prevalence across languages around the world I’m not quite sure that holds up. I understand that historically, he has been used in English to be gender neutral, but I think in this case it’s just confusing.

I think that even though it’s such a critical element of the story, the androgyny of the Genthenians simply is not centralised enough in the storytelling. Ai is the lens through which we observe this world. However, so much of the description is on the political structures and the weather, I felt like I was constantly searching for a foothold to understand what Le Guin’s imagined people were like and what their culture was. I appreciate that an inability to understand them and the way gender influenced their culture was a key issue for Ai and his mission, but I think such a fascinating idea should really have been done a bit more justice and have been given a bit more airtime.

I think the other problem I have with this book is a problem that I often have with older science fiction. The writing style is often quite cold, and relationships and emotions are often stated to exist rather than shown or felt to exist. Maybe this as well was exacerbated by Ai and his unreliable narration, but later in the book I felt like all of a sudden a relationship was there just because Ai said so, not because it had really been established.

I honestly could go on and on about this book, there really is so much in there to unpack and maybe one day I’ll have to read it again and see if, like Miéville, I can discover more on a second reading. I think this book really has a lot of important and interesting things to say, and was one of the first books to say them, but it is a difficult book to read and does feel impenetrable at times.

 

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The Shepherd’s Hut

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“The Shepherd’s Hut” by Tim Winton is about a teenage boy called Jaxie on the run from the dregs of a brutal start to life in a small Western Australian town. Escaping on foot, he ends up in a salt lake wasteland with dwindling supplies. When he has almost run out of food, water and ammunition, Jaxie comes across a shepherd’s hut, occupied by a stranded and mysterious elderly Irishman called Fintan. The two are very wary of each other, but come to an uneasy truce to not ask any questions about the other’s past. Fintan’s generosity with his basic larder of food, and his uncertainty about when, or even if, replacement supplies will arrive, means that they cannot permanently hide away from their world.

Although this was quite an easy book to read, it is a difficult book to review. The book is written in a kind of stream of consciousness narrative from the perspective of Jaxie, and this is without a doubt the highlight of the novel. Jaxie is a brilliant character full of untold complexity who is both the product of his upbringing as well as a fresh and unique voice. Winton portrays a young man with a sharp mind, one already full of knowledge and understanding if not education and experience. Jaxie’s raw, untempered thoughts are arresting, and hurtle the reader through the book. Although his words may paint him as a tough and harsh kid, it quickly becomes clear that Jaxie is very sentimental and craves to be seen as worthwhile.

This is definitely a book to make you think, and I have been thinking about it quite a bit since I read it, but I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. It’s a very compelling story, but some parts of it I felt were rushed or jammed on. In fact, I think I was in maybe the last eighth of the book, and I couldn’t believe it was about to end and couldn’t possibly see how everything would be resolve (or at least finalised).

I think the tenuous and cagey friendship between Jaxie and Fintan, the centrepiece of the book, was a prime example of this. Winton spends the majority of the book setting up the characters and putting them into a kind of routine, and then just when you felt like the friendship was about to become interesting, the book rushes into a ending that to me felt so coincidental and unlikely that it was jarring. I appreciate the technique of leaving a book open-ended, but I think how you get to that open end is important, and I’m not sure the final climax was really the best choice.

Tim Winton has been writing and speaking extensively about toxic masculinity, and I think for the most part that this book absolutely explores some of the nuances of expressing masculinity and what it means to be a man. However, again, the jarring ending meant that the message felt really muddled and I wasn’t quite sure what the point was anymore.

The language Winton used also obscured the purpose of the book and left me with a lot of questions about class and audience. Jaxie is styled with a very idiosyncratic, colloquial yet thoughtful way of speaking which is very engrossing. However, it also really made me wonder who exactly the audience of this book is intended to be. Is it meant to be for more privileged, metropolitan Australians to give them a taste of wild country life, or is it meant to make it more accessible to blue collar Australians and resonate with them through shared language? Is it meant to be both? I’m just not sure.

Anyway, I can’t really write too much more about this book without giving things away, but essentially this book was a smack around the head and my ears are still ringing. If you’re looking for something to make you think, make you feel and make your jaw drop, this is it. If you’re looking for a comfortable read, you’re not going to find it here.

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